Lore and arcana-heavy adventures can be difficult to create in Dungeons & Dragons. Here’s how Critical Role EXU: Calamity succeeded at it.
In Dungeons & Dragons, settings are the reflection of the dedicated work of creative worldbuilders, and the world of Exandria in which Critical Role is set is one of the most interesting. Its deep lore links together Critical Role‘s three campaigns, various one-shots, and the various iteration of Exandria Unlimited, including the most recent one, Calamity.
Set 1,000 years before the rest of the series, Brennan Lee Mulligan’s incredible style as Dungeon Master fits perfectly in this time of deep arcane knowledge in Exandria’s history. His long monologues about the power and hubris that permeates the Age of Arcanum give the audience and players life to the history that was written by Matthew Mercer and others who created Exandria. In a setting like this, it can be a difficult task for DMs to stay focused on the player characters and their experience in the world, but there are some lessons they can learn about preparing and running lore-heavy adventures from Mulligan’s style and EXU: Calamity.
Adventures that require a lot of lore drops and monologues from the DM can sometimes leave characters with nothing to do. In fact, the first episode of EXU: Calamity had no combat and didn’t require the players to look at their character sheets very often, if at all. Still, the DM kept everyone involved. Even though the players didn’t use many combat-focused abilities coming from the “Ring of Brass,” Mulligan gave his players opportunities to draw upon their skills and knowledge. At level 14, each of the characters were rolling astronomical skill checks, most of which are in the high 20s. For instance, Travis Willingham’s Cerrit was able to use his skills as an Inquisitive Rogue during his introductory scene to gather clues.
These skills give Brennan the opportunity to tell the players what their characters know and how they came about figuring it out. This is particularly apparent with the consistent Arcana and History checks made by the characters. Also, the way in which Brennan gives the information leaves the players feeling rewarded for their creativity and specific questioning.
EXU: Calamity‘s Avalir is highly advanced in its understanding of the arcane and their utilization of magic. A player can, at times, feel a little lost or that their character has no place in a setting like this. Mulligan does a fantastic job at portraying the overwhelming arcane knowledge of the age while making players feel in control of that power. There were times when the characters would do things that, at lower levels, would require lots of time and resources, such as identifying a magic item or detecting magic. The way the players do these things without looking at their character sheets and using specific spells or features plays into the ease at which the characters use magic.
Even those who don’t use magic have incredible abilities that match the intensity of the arcane. For instance, at the end of the first episode, Cerrit sees and kills an invisible enemy. The way in which Mulligan described Willingham’s incredible perception check made it match the power of Cerrit’s comrades, just with a different set of skills.
Arcane-heavy adventures don’t necessitate high-level characters, but lower-level characters should be given a sense of awe in the face of power they can hope to one day attain. Leaning into the feeling of being out of place and weak can also be a great experience for players. On either end of the spectrum, arcane knowledge can be a wonderful plot device.
EXU: Calamity features a few different plotlines running alongside the characters. One focuses on the theme of hubris, which is shown in many ways, but particularly through the foreshadowing of the unforeseen downfall of a great civilization. A good theme can give a trail for players to follow and a structure to the information they are given.
A great theme to use in taking after EXU: Calamity is the difference between divine and arcane forms of magic. This is a theme we see tied into the hubris of mages during this age. The story of the Calamity is centered around mages and a city whose power was so great they thought themselves equal to the gods and scoffed at those who drew magic from other sources. This theme brings along with it many historical and contemporary events and details about the world as well as how the deities of the world interact with its citizens.
Aaron is a D&D Features Writer for CBR. They have been playing video games since middle school, taking an immediate liking to Assassin’s Creed. Since 2020 his new hyper-fixation has been D&D, working up quickly from player to obsessed Dungeon Master. When they’re not playing D&D, they’re either slinging drinks as a barista or snuggling with their cats and reading one of the ten books they’ll never finish.